They were disgusted with their west Lawrence neighborhood, which resembled Johnson County's most antiseptic subdivisions more than the city's quaint, energetic downtown. Living in their townhome, with its attached garage and layout designed for privacy, the couple had met few neighbors and called none of them friends. Though she was surrounded by people, Wholey felt lonely.
Polson had heard about a living arrangement conceived in Denmark in the 1960s called cohousing. Often started by people who came to be known as "burning souls" because of their strong desire to build community, cohousing developments resemble condo complexes, where residents own their homes but share ownership of common areas. Homes are grouped around a pedestrian area (with parking established at the perimeter). Residents meet regularly to make decisions, and one or two times a week they prepare and eat meals together. The arrangement is designed to inject the sense of community residents say is missing from modern society. They want to greet each other face-to-face rather than through car windows. They want senior citizens to watch out for neighborhood children.
The national Cohousing Network says 132 such projects are in various stages of development; 42 have been completed in cities such as Littleton, Colorado; Oceano, California; and Amherst, Massachusetts.
Wholey and Polson ran newspaper ads and hung fliers hoping to recruit other people who shared their dream of a new life. They set up a Web site and talked to anyone who would listen. And they ignored jokes about group sex, explaining repeatedly that it wouldn't be a commune.
By last summer, they had found 3.2 acres of land on Delaware Street, between older residential and industrial parts of Lawrence. On it was a farmhouse built in the 1870s, which they planned to make a common house. Dozens of people were interested enough to come to a meeting or two, and ten families put up deposits of a few thousand dollars each.
But despite the rhetoric of group processes, despite the weekly meetings, despite their happy talk of a new way of life, Wholey felt that something wasn't right. As June 15 of this year approached -- the closing date on the sale of the property -- she experienced the same unease she'd felt in 1996 before she and her husband moved from Lawrence to El Paso, Texas. She'd ended up returning to Lawrence six weeks later, and the two divorced.
"I didn't pay attention that time," she told the members of the group around June 1. "I'm paying attention this time. This is not comfortable for me. I can't do it."
The burning souls had burned out.
Wholey and Polson had been doing most of the work and providing most of the financial support through loans to the project. The inequity was driven by their availability -- Polson is a retired architect, Wholey a retired social worker.
It also was driven by personality. "We are both kind of impatient, get-it-done kind of people," Wholey admits.
Their partners let them carry the load, says Rich Minder, who hopes to live in Delaware Street Commons with his wife and their two young children.
"Steve and Margie put a great deal of work into the project early on and really worked very hard to advance it," Minder says.
Hearing Wholey's confession, most of the group members assumed the project was dead. But, Minder says, "I did not want to leave any options closed." The remaining members asked for more time from the seller and found a new bank willing to make the loan if Wholey would cosign (she did). Early this month, they closed on the $370,000 purchase. "It became clear," Minder says, "that the group is much stronger than two individuals in it, no matter who they are."
They still need about five more families, however, before they can order architectural plans, and a dozen more to break ground.